The Bible often speaks in broad words, in great sweeping statements. We often observe so little nuance in its words, so few exceptions to its commands. As we read the Bible we come across statements like these:
- “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). Here’s how I understand that: Every time you pray you need to forgive everyone for everything. I don’t see exception clauses there. Do you?
- “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). What is an appropriate excuse for anxiety? Nothing. When is it appropriate to be anxious? Never.
- “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love everyone, even people you barely know, even people who have hurt you. Oh, and look out for their best interests with the same passion and enthusiasm with which you look out for your own.
- “Honor your father and your mother.” “Children, obey your parents in everything.” Every child owes honor to their parents. Every young child owes obedience to their parents. All the time.
In so many cases and in so many ways the Bible speaks in black and white terms. It so seldom lays out exception clauses. “Love your neighbor unless or until…” “Honor your father and your mother except…”
I have been writing, teaching, and preaching for quite a long time now and along the way I’ve made an interesting observation. Whenever I write or speak about these kinds of commands, I immediately face questions about the “what if” scenarios. If I preach about forgiveness I know that immediately after the sermon someone will ask, “But what if I faced abuse?” If I write about anxiety someone will right away ask, “But what about my anxiety disorder which has been officially diagnosed?” If I speak about honor someone will say, “Ah, but you’ve never met my parents and have never seen what they are like.”
I am sympathetic with these concerns, of course. I have raised many of these questions myself. And often, as we dig deeper into the Bible, we find there are exceptions and there are nuances. God gives us his commands but also gives us wisdom to apply them in all the intricacies of life—especially life in a messy, sin-stained world. Do we always have to forgive? I don’t think that’s possible, though I am convinced we at least need to be willing to forgive. Do we always need to obey our parents? No, not if they are commanding something that is sinful. God gives us a whole Bible and a Holy Spirit for a reason.
What troubles me, though, and especially as I examine my own heart, is the speed with which I appeal to the exceptions. When I read Mark 11:25 (“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone…”) my first thought is not, “God forgive me for my lack of forgiveness!” or “Okay, so who do I need to forgive?” My first thought is “Yeah, but what about this situation or that situation?” When God goes big, my first tendency is to go small. When God speaks universally, my first thought is to look for exceptions, for the nuances that allow me to wiggle out from under his commands.
The Bible speaks in broad words, in great sweeping statements. There are times to interpret those words and statements, to apply wisdom to them. But first we must deal with them as they are, to allow them to hit with all of their force, all of their impact. Then, and only then, do we ask our “what if” questions.